Steve Mann vividly remembers the first time he saw Flossie Boyd Johnson perform. He was in the low ambiance of an Anderson, S.C., middle school cafeteria with a crowd dulled by the lackluster gospel quartets that had opened the show. To make matters worse, Johnson was running late, but upon arrival she burst up onstage, shoeless and clutching a handbag, grabbed the mic, saw the dazed audience and essentially said, “Not on my watch.”
“She started the place on fire and got it going,” Mann says. “There were a few groups after her, and they really had to work. They weren’t too happy about going on after her.”
The Bishopville, S.C., singer and her group Favor usher in the monthly Soul Gospel Night at The Double Crown on Thursday, July 30. Mann and co-owner Chris Bower, both passionate fans of black gospel quartet music, view the series as part of the ongoing process of using quality tunes to heal the former Mike’s Side Pocket location, where three people were stabbed to death in April 2012.
The reclamation project began when Mann and Bower booked the Legendary Singing Stars for the venue’s opening night. They’ve brought the group back three more times, most recently for the West Asheville club’s two-year anniversary in December. The positive responses that those shows elicited from attendees and performers alike inspired the owners to bring in similar acts on a regular basis.
“Everyone who comes really loves it,” Mann says. “Some people don’t quite get it. They think, ‘Gospel at a bar?’ But they’re blown away by the experience. It’s singing like they’ve never heard before.”
Along with the unusual setting — schools, churches and small auditoriums are the norm — the series offers artists a rare night to themselves. As with the show where Mann was introduced to Johnson’s talents, groups are typically on a bill with four of five other acts and limited to 30-40 minutes. At The Double Crown, groups normally play two 45-minute sets or one that lasts a full hour. Considering the hard singing and high level of energy on display, running longer isn’t often feasible — “They burn bright but short,” Mann says — but in that expanded timeframe, groups tend to tap into their creativity and go places they haven’t gone before.
“The last time the Singing Stars were here, they went into a country/blues thing. We were all like, ‘What’s happening?’” Mann says. “Someone has a video of it — I need to watch it to make sure it really happened.”
Johnson plans to use the opportunity for some experimentation of her own. With the harmony singers and guitar, bass, drums and keyboard players that make up Favor, she’ll adhere to the lesson her father taught her from a young age as part of the Floyd Family — a lesson that she and her three sisters carried with them in their own act. “He would always tell us, ‘Learn to sing to everyone and learn to sing everywhere. When you do that, you know how to reach everybody in any place,’” Johnson says.
Count Mann among those for whom that mission has been a great success. “Every time I’ve seen her, she sets it off,” he says. “She reads the crowd and dials into them, which is kind of a dying skill, I think, with any kind of performer. She really knows how to do it and she feels it — that’s what she loves doing.”
A devout Christian and minister, Johnson humbly calls that skill “a gift from God.” She adds that she thinks people “have to have a certain relationship with God to do certain things” and that once she gets up to perform, he will often put a vision before her to reach a particular person. “The tears that people share are a big sign that they are receiving what you say well, or are going through something and what you’re saying is touching them,” Johnson says.
Complementing the powerful music, soul food will also be available for purchase at each Soul Gospel Night. Buxton Hall Barbecue’s Elliott Moss helms the first installment and, after conferring with Johnson on her favorite dishes, will serve pork sandwiches, wood-grilled corn on the cob, summer vegetables and mac and cheese.
The series continues on Thursday, Aug. 27, with Thomas Rhyant, a gospel singer who’ll do one set in that style, then turn around and do a Sam Cooke revue. For September, Mann hopes to get the Fantastic Violinaires, with whom Rhyant also performs. Originally from Detroit, the Charlotte-based group was signed to Chess Records and used to sing with Wilson Pickett. Later potential acts include the Supreme Angels (originally from Milwaukee, now based in Goldsboro) and High Point’s Brooklyn All-Stars, two of many groups across the Southeast whose adherence to tradition has Johnson confident in her music’s future.
“Quartets will never die,” she says. “We’ve had a lot of changes in our musical styles and we’re doing different things, but the basics will always stand.”
WHO: Flossie Boyd Johnson & Favor
WHERE: The Double Crown, thedoublecrown.com
WHEN: Thursday, July 30, at 10 p.m. $10